'71 World Series Game 7 Pirates vs. Orioles: 40 Years Later

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'71 World Series Game 7 Pirates vs. Orioles: 40 Years Later
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

A few months ago when the Pirates were celebrating the 40th anniversary of their 1971 World Series win, I lamented to a friend how I'd only seen a handful of highlights of the Series over the years and thought it would be great if there were a way to see the actual full games. 

Only then did I find out that iTunes has a collection of historical games under the Baseball's Best title which actually offered Game 7 from the '71 Series both for sale and to rent. 

Given the unlikelihood of inventing a time machine any time soon, I decided to make the purchase.

Rather than provide a dry frame by frame rehash, as obviously the Pirates won, I figured it would be interesting to see how much the game has changed in the span of 40 years with a few observations sprinkled in along the way.

The key takeaway...simplicity. 

 

TV Coverage:

NBC broadcast the Series in color with Curt Gowdy doing color commentary alongside Orioles play-by-play announcer Chuck Thompson.  For several years NBC would use this formula in pairing Gowdy with one of the home team announcers; therefore while at Three Rivers during games 3-5, Bob Prince was in the booth.  

Graphics are limited to basic stats and the occasional anecdote typed out on the bottom of the screen, but if anything the simplicity in this case provides both Gowdy and Thompson the room to paint a picture rather than rely on flashy gimmicks, cheap banter and name-dropping anecdotes. 

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

 

The Managers:

Night and Day.

Earl Weaver immediately made his presence known by challenging Steve Blass in the bottom of the first by disputing his position on the mound. 

Meanwhile Danny Murtaugh, by comparison, almost seemed annoyed with having to leave the bench to discuss the fallout with both the umpire and Blass.  Even more surprising was his interview during the postgame celebration as he came across as soft-spoken and almost reluctant, perhaps due to the mixture of excitement/exhaustion.

 

The Players:

They actually look human.  Boog Powell can be seen sporting a bit of a paunch in his double-knit uni, Jackie Hernandez looked like he won a contest that morning to play shortstop, and both Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente looked like they could play forever. 

What is perhaps interesting/comforting is seeing how the stat lines actually match the physical appearance of the individual players. 

Merv Rettenmund really does look like he could hit .318 / 11 / 75 behind Frank Robinson, while Dave Cash's numbers .289 / 2 / 34 make sense at the top of the order for the Bucs.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was seeing Willie Stargell, who during the season hit .295 / 48 / 125, but had an awful Series and was dropped from the cleanup spot to sixth in the lineup.  His body language is abysmal most of the game, and it almost seemed that Mike Cuellar sensed it enough to challenge him with little to no fear.  Even when he does get a hit, it only comes after the Orioles shifted defensively.  

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Not so surprisingly though, Bob Robertson, who took over the cleanup spot for Stargell and seemed like he would be a sure thing for years to come based on his play that year and in the post season, never amounted to much...while Stargell would more than redeem himself years later in the '79 Series.

But the real reason to watch is for the true stars...Roberto Clemente and Steve Blass.

It's almost surreal to see Blass 40 years ago, just as it is to see old pictures of your parents.  Blass sported a thick head of hair, a goofy grin and a throwing motion so unorthodox that it would be impossible for him today to make it past A ball without someone tinkering with it. 

As for Clemente, all the stories you've heard and read are true.  Until you see him, though, it's all just empty words as every time he appears you wait in anticipation for something to happen.  He's a joy to watch, whether he's swinging wildly at junk from Cuellar or casually making a basket catch on a routine fly ball.  

In his first at-bat, it's rather amusing to hear Chuck Thompson almost begrudgingly praise Clemente for his exploits during the Series.  To not say something would have seemed petty, but Thompson—ever the professional—makes sure to capture each and every detail in his introduction.  

 

The Game:

Understandably tense, but relatively fast-paced as both defenses made some solid plays to keep things tight.   

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Both Blass and Cuellar pitched masterfully with the only mistake through seven full innings coming against Clemente who turned on a first-pitch breaking ball in the fourth with a shot to left center to put the Pirates up 1-0. 

Things pick up in the eighth as Stargell led off with a base hit to center past Mark Belanger who had shifted towards second.  The next hitter, Jose Pagan, initially looked outmatched, but eventually made contact with a shot to left center that even he seemed to think had little chance.  Whether it was the wind or Merv Rettenmund breaking bad, the ball dropped, he bobbled it upon getting control before firing to the cutoff and the relay from there for some reason was cutoff by Boog Powell as Stargell awkwardly slid at the plate...2-0 Pirates.  If any of the mistakes made in that sequence had been avoided, Stargell would likely have been punched out at home.  

With six outs to go and the bottom of the order coming up, Blass very quickly seemed like a man on his last legs in surrendering singles to Elrod Hendricks and Mark Belanger.  While Danny Murtaugh sat stoically on the bench, Dave Giusti and Luke Walker quickly got up in the pen as pinch hitter Tom Shopay laid down a sacrifice to advance the runners.      

Whatever led Murtaugh to keep Blass in is beyond me.  Today, Murtaugh would have already made two trips to the mound to quiet the crowd and buy time before bringing in Walker.  Giusti, of course, as the closer would have to wait for the final three outs, assuming that Walker got the Bucs out of trouble. 

Instead Blass forced Don Buford to hit into a fielder's choice that scored Hendricks...2-1 Pirates.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Finally Davey Johnson hit a hot shot to Jackie Hernandez at short that he rifled to Robertson to end the threat.

From there the Bucs tried to make things interesting in the top of the ninth following a long but somewhat entertaining at-bat for Clemente, but they failed to get anyone home after Weaver pulled Pat Dobson for Dave McNally to get Stargell.

In the bottom of the ninth, Blass went out against the heart of the order with no one warming up in the pen.   With the exception of a towering foul ball by Boog Powell, Blass made quick work of the Orioles before leaping into Robertson's arms following Rettenmund's grounder to Hernandez as Curt Gowdy hinted would happen seconds before. 

 

The Postgame:

Clemente was named MVP and won a Dodge Charger for his efforts; meanwhile Stargell simply looked relieved as he's carried into the clubhouse.  From there Bob Prince led the celebration through the trophy presentation with Murtaugh's quick but humble thanks, followed by Blass simply trying to make sense of the moment. 

Then in what is perhaps one of the finest moments of the entire telecast, Clemente asked his parents for their blessing in Spanish.  It is a sweet, yet albeit simple request that he made in seizing the moment. 

From there we go back to Curt Gowdy in the booth who still seems somewhat dumbstruck that the Pirates' makeshift staff beat the vaunted Orioles rotation that boasted four 20-game winners. 

 

Conclusion:

It was simple. 

Clemente and Blass did what was necessary to win with a team that made use of every man at their disposal while the Orioles, for the second time in three years, seemed to underestimate their opponent.  Game 7 wasn't necessarily heart-pounding, but the moments that live on are fun to watch within the full context of the game.  The characters that you grew up hearing stories about come to live in living color with none being quite as vibrant as Clemente.  Even while striking out you can't help but watch in awe in seeing the man himself come to life. 

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